RLV regulation: licensing vs. certification
by Jeff Foust
|Certifying RLVs like aircraft could increase their cost by up to a factor of 100.|
Developers of reusable launch vehicles, particularly suborbital vehicles that more closely resemble aircraft than conventional launch vehicles, have expressed concern about the costs of certification. “To go from an experimental vehicle to a certified vehicle is typically a ten times increase in price, on the rough order of magnitude,” said X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis during the Space Access ’03 conference last weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona. “And for the unknowns we have here it could be well more than ten times, it could be 20 or 30 times.”
Dan DeLong, chief engineer for XCOR Aerospace, is even more pessimistic, estimating that certification could cost up to 100 times as much as development. “It’s tough raising the money to build the vehicle,” he said, “but if you have to certify it before you’re allowed to make money with it, it will be 100 times harder and it just won’t happen.”
However, certification only applies to the various types of aircraft, as well as manned balloons. Certification is not used for launch vehicles, which are instead licensed by the FAA’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). “We don’t use the ‘C’ word [certification] at any time in our office,” said Michelle Murray of AST during a panel session on regulatory issues at Space Access. “Everything is licensing; certification is for airplanes.”
Today, AST routinely licenses commercial flights of expendable launch vehicles. It also has the authority, granted under the Commercial Space Act of 1998, to license the launch and reentry of RLVs. AST published the regulations for RLV licensing in 2000, although to date no RLV licenses have been issued.
|“We don’t use the ‘C’ word at any time in our office,” said AST’s Murray. “Certification is for airplanes.”|
While licensing is still a detailed process, it is widely considered less onerous than certification. However, what is to keep the FAA from classifying a suborbital RLV, like XCOR’s Xerus—a winged vehicle that takes off and lands on runways—as just a high-altitude aircraft that requires certification? To help make sure suborbital RLVs are considered as launch vehicles and not aircraft, the FAA has developed a pair of definitions for suborbital rockets and suborbital trajectories. Those definitions were announced for the first time at Space Access:
Suborbital rocket: a rocket-propelled vehicle intended for flight on a suborbital trajectory whose thrust is greater than its lift for the majority of the powered portion of its flight.
Suborbital trajectory: the intentional flight path of a launch vehicle, reentry vehicle, or any portion thereof, whose vacuum instantaneous impact point does not leave the surface of the Earth.
Those definitions, Murray said, are designed to be used internally to help the FAA classify vehicles. There are no plans to use them in formal rulemaking documents.
Those definitions were well-received by conference attendees, some of whom cheered and applauded immediately after the definitions were read. “We can live with that,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “One of the primary purposes of flying the EZ Rocket was to kickstart this process because we couldn’t figure out any other way to get an answer out of the FAA.”